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How Grammar Can Help to Maintain
Motivation of Advanced Learners
by Greg Gobel
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Exploiting grammar to motivate advanced learners

According to Skehan, grammatical instruction can ‘make initial change more likely’ and ‘…mark for learners that they have not succeeded in mastering the interlanguage system of the language they are learning.’(10) This leads learners to be motivated to close the gap between their own interlanguage and the target language. ‘This signaling of incompletion is important for learners since it is likely to preserve openness in the language system being developed, and it induces learners to persist at a difficult task.’(11) Thus, awareness of one’s incomplete interlanguage is the key for grammar to be motivational. The teacher, then, needs to implement tasks that encourage the learner to recognize her own incompletion and then noticeably close the gap. Below are six progressive ideas in grammar teaching/learning that I think can help this process along.

As Choice

Close says, ‘…the element of choice and of subtle distinction…’ is one that learners ‘…may fail to appreciate or even to see.’(12) Batstone says, ‘Central to the whole enterprise, then, is the issue of learner choice, and the grammatical consequences of the choices the learner makes.’(13) ‘The objective is to allow a measure of choice in what the learner produces, while at the same time regulating or guiding these choices down particular pathways.’(14) The job of the teacher, then, is to help learners both to see and then appreciate the choices they are presented with. By explicitly guiding learners to realize choices they have, learners can take more personal control over their English usage. As one of my CAE learners responded, ‘It’s a good motivating target to know [you’re] nearer to [controlling] the language.’ McCarthy and Carter also emphasize choice: ‘learners need to be given more grammatical choices if they are to operate flexibly in a range of spoken and written contexts.’(15) Nunan, however, rightly implies that without awareness and clearly identifying the purpose of grammatical choice, focusing on grammar could be de-motivating: ‘If the communicative value of alternative grammatical forms is not made clear to learners, they come away with the impression that the alternative forms exist merely to make things difficult for them.’(16) So for the choice to be motivating, the teacher can help her learners realize that the use of grammar is a ‘communicative resource,’(17) ‘not as an end in itself.’(18)

One practical way of giving learners choice is through grammaticization tasks, which reflect the process of calling ‘on grammar to make our meanings clear, and the less knowledge is shared, the more likely it is that grammar will become a necessary resource for both parties.’(19) Some practical activities include re-grammaring a de-grammared text and then comparing the two,(20) giving learners words and pictures and asking them to add the grammar so that learners ‘formulate their own interpretation of the story,’(21) expanding headlines,(22) changing informal (often de-grammared language) into more formal language,(23) and the reconstruction stage in dictogloss.(24)

Spoken Grammar (SG)

Based on their spoken English corpus studies, McCarthy and Carter say ‘…certain grammatical forms…enable a greater degree of interpersonal and interactive language uses…’(25) In my experience, most learners, especially advanced learners, want to improve their speaking and conversational skills, so using corpus-based elements of SG feeds naturally into their intrinsic motivation. High-level learners have probably learned most of their grammar based on written English so it is high time to include SG, which ‘has its own constructional principles; it is organised differently from writing.’(26)

Teaching elements of SG could also be motivating because it can help advanced learners to develop more natural usage and to realize for themselves that this is used language that, although extremely common, they have not focused on previously. McCarthy and Carter suggest several useful SG features(27):

  • ellipsis,
  • left-fronting of topics,
  • tails,
  • reporting verbs,
  • tend to,
  • tags,
  • will/be going to.

Teachers could supplement their coursebooks by integrating these into their syllabuses. A starting point is Yule’s example of reported discourse: ‘there is a strong likelihood that when speakers report previous conversations, they do not produce a verbatim record, but instead construct dialogue for the participants.’(28) That is, there is a mismatch between the mechanical reporting in coursebooks and what may actually happen. It could be motivating for learners to discover this mismatch and improve their output accordingly.

Practical ways of dealing with SG include text-based activities such as analyzing transcripts, transforming coursebook dialogues into more authentic spoken dialogues by employing spoken grammar elements, transforming spoken grammar into more writerly language, or vice-versa. Learners can also discuss the differences between the SG element and the written grammar element. Role play, real play and simulation are classic activities in which learners could try to activate the spoken grammar elements.

10. Skehan, 1994: 189
11. bid: 189
12. Close, 1992: 2
13. Batstone, 1994b: 233
14. bid: 233
15. McCarthy and Carter, 1995: 207
16. Nunan, 1998: 103
17. Batstone, 1994a: 71
18. Ur, 1988: 5
19. Batstone, 1994a: 32
20. Thornbury, 2001: 12
21. Batstone, 1994a: 106-107
22. Thornbury, 2001: 81-82
23. bid: 90-91
24. Wajnryb, 1990: 8-9, 12
25. McCarthy and Carter, 1995: 207
26. Harmer, 2001: 14 (summarizing Biber, et al, 1996: 1066-1108)
27. McCarthy and Carter, 1995: 208-214
28. Yule, 1992: 248

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